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The rooftop tours of Siena's Gothic cathedral are an exciting new entry in Tuscany's cultural calendar. Not that the church was falling short of artistic highlights so far with its works by Italy's most famous sculptors, the amazing intarsia marble floor - which is uncovered only for two months each year - and Pinturicchio's detailed frescoes of the life of Pope Pius II in the Piccolomini library (one of my all time favorites in Siena). 

But fact is that thousands of well meaning tourists put a lot of time and effort into visiting churches, chapels and cathedrals every day - and once out the door have already forgotten what they've just looked at. I don't blame them. The sheer amount of architectural wonders on the 'what to see in Tuscany' list is a little intimidating even if you live here. Let alone if you only have a week. 

So what to do about it?

Visiting Siena's most important church during a Porta del Cielo (gate to heaven) tour seems a good approach to changing this. You may not be able to remember every detail of the cathedral's artistic legacy once back home. But the view from up here made a lasting impression even on my eight-year old. 

Siena cathedral: panoramic view of the nave and the uncovered marble floors
Nice view if you can get it: the nave of Siena's cathedral
 seen from the top floor (with marble floors uncovered)

After the steep climb up a hidden travertine staircase, the way to the cathedral's roof is via the newly restored attic. 

Attic? Cathedrals have attics too? 

I have visited Siena's cathedral countless times, but I never suspected the existence of a secret second floor. It had not occurred to me that a whole bunch of people spent their workdays scurrying through the cathedral's sky parlors, restoring a bit here and changing something there. And maybe feeling relieved that the hordes of tourists didn't have access to the tranquil upper floors. 

Until now that is. From April to October 2013 - for the first time in history - the Porta del Cielo visits can be booked by locals and tourists alike via the Opa museum's info point. These guided tours aren't just a great experience for the church and Renaissance lovers out there, but also for art resistant teenagers - and for the many adults between us, who still haven't grown out of that phase.

Most people wouldn’t dream of signing up for a behind the scenes tour of a 20th century building (some more bad artificial lighting, cables and air conditioners, right). The medieval sky parlors of Siena’s cathedral are a totally different story. They may be mostly art free (apart of the beautiful sketches a 18th century architect drew right on the wall), but are aesthetically appealing nevertheless. Totally restored and cleaned - the space was invested by pigeons and had been used as a storing space over the centuries - the cathedral's upper floor is an intriguing place. 

Apart of the breathtaking views into the nave and dome of the cathedral and over the roofs of Siena, the surprise lies in many an unexpected detail. For example the ingenious indoor pipelines, which carry the rainwater from the roof to a well into the courtyard on the left side of the church (and I thought rainwater saving had been invented with the green building movement in the 20th century). But Tuscany being Tuscany, these pipelines aren't just practical - and allowing the cathedral's famous marble facade to do without eaves - but also beautifully designed. Siena's Gothic archistars were just way ahead of their time. 

The indoor waterways in the attic of Siena's cathedral
Renaissance pipelines.
 Things just used to have style in the good old days. 

A guided visit to the roof of Siena's Cathedral
No eaves, but plenty of stripes!
The rear end of the cathedral's facade

San Domenico church seen from the attic of Siena's cathedral
San Domenico church seen from the attic 
with the dome of the baptistery in the forefront 

The OPA musuem inside Siena's 'new' cathedral seen from the roof of the old cathedral
From roof to roof.
View towards the facade of the never finished new cathedral


  • WHEN: from March 1, 2014 to January 6, 2015 on reservation only
  • PRICE: 25€ per person with a maximum of 20 participants per group. Kids only in the company of an adult (reduced ticket up to 11 years 7€). Opa Si pass and gate of heaven visit: 30€. Perfect if you're going to visit the other museums of the OPA complex (and you should!)
  • LANGUAGES: On previous booking tours are available in Italian, English, French, German and Spanish. 
Tour groups are accompanied by a OPA museum guide and - in true VIP tour manner - two security guards. You will hear about the important role the cathedral played and plays for Siena's population, who dedicated it to Santa Maria Assunta (The Virgin Mary). The guided visits also provide fascinating insight about the particular construction techniques used to build the church and about the daily restoration work needed to keep it going through the centuries.

Make sure you wear comfy shoes. And enjoy the view!

Piazza del Campo with Torre del Mangia seen from the roof of Siena's cathedral
Torre del Mangia and a slice of piazza del Campo from the roof of the cathedral

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